By Sabrina F Ahmad & Azfarul Islam
"'tis most vexatious", said the wizened woman, gravely. "The prevalent publication known as the Rising Stars is in dire need of wit and word. Therefore, I have journeyed through pothole and mire to make a request, an urgent one, a desperate one. Will you take the 'One Story' to yonder 'Rising Stars'?]"
In the shadows lightly dappled with the light reflected off the countless mirrors affixed on the woman's garb, two brave adventurers smiled.
"However, you will have to take the road unridden. The path unpolished. The thoroughfare untarred. The passage, erm, unpassed. In order for this story to have any significance, you will need to journey... on foot!" she finished theatrically.
One of the adventurers abruptly stopped smiling.
There and we're certainly not going back again
“You sure we don't need to collect a team of swashbuckling explorers?", Az asked a little too earnestly, with a halfway decent attempt at what some may term a 'disarming grin'. Unfortunately, Sabs still had her arms stubbornly folded.
"This is weird: why are you so reluctant? You're normally so sprightly about everything. Did you get mugged? Run over? Fall into an open manhole? Erm, slip on poo and fall into it?" Sabs assaulted Az with her piercing questions. Az simply parried them, indicating that he had not been mugged, that it was probably dumb to ask him if he'd been run over, that there was no way he'd ever fall into an open manhole and that, finally, even if he slipped on poo, he'd never tell anyone about it, ever. Of course, he just shook his head.
"Well..." Sabs took a deep breath and tried one last attack, "...while getting mugged, did you try to run away, almost get crushed by a car, trip on a bit of broken pavement, stumble, slip on some poo and then fall into an open manhole?”
"Wait, what? No, no, no. I've just got agyrophobia. And I can't decide if I'm depressed because I have it or because the term actually exists."
"You have a fear of crossing streets?" Sabs raised her eyebrows. Az shrugged, a little embarrassed.
“Don't worry. I mean, what could possibly go wrong, right?”
Where have all the good pavements gone?
"See one yet?”
"What about over there?”
“How's your favourite teacup?"
"Brok...hey, don't mess with my teacup!"
Brows furrowed in concentration, Sabs took a running leap, landed on her toes, daintily balancing on the edge of a protruding brick, and then managed to find firm footing without twisting her ankle. Not willing to be outdone, Az began a light jog and upon reaching the edge, pounced on the broken ground next to Sabs, hands in his pockets. As he flashed a grin at her, she whispered in his ear: "We're going to have to cross the street soon."
Az winced. As the adventurers continued forward, they couldn't help but notice something peculiar. In this bog of broken slabs of concrete and stagnant pools of suspect fluids, some roads seemed untouched. Solid blocks interlocked neatly into a classic configuration, with the lightest coating of dust as if it were powdered sugar. Even dog droppings weren't allowed to touch it or atleast remain untouched for long, as evidenced by a tell-tale moistened spot.
"Why don't we take that route?”
Sabs grit her teeth. "How? Not only does it take us out of our way but it doesn't even join the main road.”
"Really? Because I swear if we just go West a little, wait for a crossroad and then turn North, we'll be..." Az stopped at the look on Sabs' face.
"We've been heading South all this time, not North.”
"Is there something you should be telling me?”
There was an awkward silence. A crow relieved its load somewhere nearby in anticipation.
"So, why are these roads so daintily kept?"
"Well it's obvious isn't it? The residents can afford it" Sabs said darkly.
"Bt roads are public prop... oh. Oh." Az shook his head in disgust.
France gets Banlieue 13 and we get Goli Nambar 9. In your face, cretins !
The line of rickshaws extended forward as far as the eye could see. The odd car, hedged in by the three-wheelers from all sides, sat vegetating in the middle of what used to be a three-car by-lane, but now looked like a battlefield designed for trench warfare. This would be a good time to gasp in surprise and bemoan the chances of ever making it out of the jam alive, except, with this being the fifth by-lane that had succumbed to roadworks, the novelty had worn off.
Rolling up her sleeves and pant legs, tucking her handbag under her armpit, Sabs waded between the rickshaw wheels, occasionally vaulting over an empty seat or two, before arriving at the very margin of what once used to be a pavement, obviously broken. Tiptoeing past the mounds of dirt and other unmentionables that stood sentinel over the trenches, deftly side-stepping a surprise load of poo, she finally arrived at the intersection of lanes. She allowed herself a glance back...and Az was nowhere to be seen.
"Good advice...you might want to inform the DCC!"
She swivelled around, and there he was, sweaty, red-faced, and looking very peeved.
"Where were you?"
"Lost your footing on a loose brick? Made a wrong turn at the third rickshaw? Fell into a manhole?"
"No. Hell, no. And bite your tongue, woman!"
"Then kindly explain how you managed to get lost on a straight road?"
"I took the underpass"
"You. Did. Not"
"I did..." Az whimpered.
They shared a shudder as they contemplated the dark, dank underbelly of the city's streets, with the dim lighting, stained walls, mucky floors, the fug of sweat, urine, and desperation, and the occasional overhead caress of what one fervently hoped was merely a cobweb.
"That's it. We're taking an overbridge."
"At least you can see what's coming at you."
Over the overpass we go
"Afa! Baiyya! Afnera ki obhijan-e?"
"See, I told you. He always knows" Az muttered to Sabs.
"Afa, I'm sure you're hungry! You want fried chicken?"
"Erm, what's in it?" Sabs ventured politely.
"Not sure, but this one's from Hello Fried Chickenlarge and chunky. This one's from Best
Fried Chickenoily, crunchy, still good. This one's from KFCit's my best seller!" he ticked them off.
"And this one?"
"Oh, it's from Katabon..." entrepreneur, chicken vendor and quadruple-degree holder (could be quintuple but the local college hadn't started dumping its Law lecture notes just yet) Amare-maaf-koira-den Dilip frowned.
"They don't make fried chicken over there, Dilip" Az sounded weary.
"Ah, well... how about magic balls? No?
Fluorescent devil horns? Could I interest you in this map of the area?"
"Dilip...that's a newspaper with a massive stain of betel juice. Someone's just scribbled an outline" Sabs sounded amused.
"Really? That explains why none of the maps looked the same. Ah well, most people loved 'em!" Dilip flashed his winning, toothless smile again.
"Right. Dilip, thanks loads but I think we'll be off now!" Az said cheerily, grabbed Sabs and surged forward.
As he cut a swathe through the miasma of sweat and smells, Az felt an ever-growing tug from Sabs' hand. The kind of tug that suggested that the owner of the hand was being impeded by either a bedraggled old man or a limping young boy or a girl with flowers and one blind eye. He turned around and was mildly surprised to find an old woman draped in a shawl waving a crumpled certificate under Sabs' nose. Az moved next to Sabs and politely asked the elder if he could help her. Without even a glance, she took a quick sniff and shook her head vehemently. Az rolled his eyes, as the woman's continued efforts to endear her sob story to Sabs resulted in some crisp notes being handed out.
"You shouldn't have done that" Az chimed.
By the time they had reached the end of the over bridge, both had been accosted by no less than seven different beggars, all with tales of abject woe and suffering, the likes of which made one appreciate the truism that truth was indeed stranger than fiction. Each time they'd shot Az a look of pure venom whilst reserving soft, melting puppy dog eyes for an increasingly harassed Sabs.
With the last one, Az bent forward theatrically and whispered loudly: "You've still got your beard on, little girl" The beggar's mouth hung as it flushed and then skedaddled, broken leg miraculously healed. Sabs facepalmed as realisation dawned and Az chuckled.
In the end, it doesn't really matter
And so our young adventurers were put to the test, A race of survival only to be won by the fittest;
Fares for rides, and vehicular options they had none, They traipsed over the streets of Dhaka all alone.
So stoic and uncomplaining, be it love or war,
They moved on in the quest to save Rising Stars. Muggers and beggars, pavements and stones,
Organic 'traps', and more stood betwixt them and home;
Onward they went, and all this they braved
To deliver the cover story, and the day is saved!